Back in 1975 we cared about our children. But not in the way we do today. Instead of 'helicopter parenting' we'd trust ABC to create a compelling movie to teach our kids something. So when they came home from school and we were in some dive bar complaining about work, they could plop on the couch and watch a lurid 'After School Special'. Thus duly scared straight, we'd wait until our parents passed out before we climbed out of a basement window to go smoke pot on the playground.
In Sarah T. a post-Exorcist Linda Blair is directed by a pre-Superman Richard Donner, in a movie featuring a pre-Star-Wars Mark Hamill and post/pre-I Dream of Genie/ Dallas Larry Hagman. Armed with After School star-power, Donner and screenwriters Richard and Esther Shapiro craft a surprisingly moving, realistic tale that far out-shines all the snark I've just delivered. (As an aside, and to establish Sarah T.'s bona fides, the movie clearly resembles the 2004 auto-biography I'm currently reading, "Smashed" by Koren Zailckas, a real-life Sarah T.)
Sarah (Blair) gets into drinking the way most kids do, through boredom, and inattentive, boozing parents. Which is not to say external forces aren't also at play. Sarah's mom Jean (played with steely reserve and fragility by Verna Bloom) has uprooted her family and moved on from her ex-husband, alcoholic man-child Jerry (Hagman), the father Sarah truly loves as everything she thinks her mother isn't. It's a wrenching adjustment, and when your folks' lives seem to revolve around the daily ritual of alcohol, what's to stop you from taking a pull or two yourself when serving the adults at your family Christmas Party? Those first drinks lead to more experimentation, and when downing free-flowing booze makes you more popular at a school party, why not use it as a way to impress that dreamy boy Ken (Hamill).
Things of course eventually get very bad for Sarah, allowing for one or two lurid, sensationalistic scenes that were the likely draw for teen viewers then, and us now. But the primary reward is a sensitive, compelling drama full of simple truths and powerful performances. Blair proves herself a talent beyond her years, sliding easily from insecure school-girl to cocksure party-girl to terrified child on the streets, with ease and stealthy skill. She's a better 'eye actor' than many adults. Hamill, given a decent script and skilled direction, betrays none of the awkwardness with which he inadvertently became a superstar. His Ken makes a believably conflicted counterpart to Sarah, while Hagman's rumpled dreamer (not present enough in Sarah's life, nor in the movie) is note-perfect.
Sarah T. works breathlessly towards a satisfying end-point, with the promise of hope, but bows left untied. Not only is it a feature-quality movie, it probably helped a few kids back in the day, and retains the power to do so now. Though not a true 'After School Special', this made-for-TV movie directed at teens deserves this Blu-ray release, both for nostalgia's sake, and for its power as a well-told, important story. Highly Recommended.